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Last Updated: Friday, 10 November 2006, 15:45 GMT
Perils of the motorway pit stops
By Maurice May
BBC Money Programme

Motorway with service slip-road
Roadside services have made some drivers keep right on going

We've all had to break a motorway journey, whether it is for petrol, food or to go to the loo.

Yet, many of us will hesitate before taking the slip-road to a service area for fears about the quality and the price of the food on offer, or even the state of the loos.

The big motorway service operators say the industry is changing for the better - but are the perils of the motorway pit-stop really a thing of the past?

Horror stories of broken toilets, poor value-for-money and bad food abound.

Poor reputations

The companies who dominate this industry - Moto, Welcome Break and RoadChef - say they have spent millions of pounds in recent years upgrading their toilets and improving the food on offer.

Martin Grant is the chief executive of motorway services operator RoadChef. He accepts that the public had a low opinion of the industry, but feels they have turned a corner.

BBC presenter and Rod McKie of Welcome Break
Rod McKie of Welcome Break says firms are spending big bucks

"A lot of people are working on the premise of what happened five and 10 years ago. And all I'd say to them is come and try motorway service areas today because they are very, very different."

Rod McKie of Welcome Break is fully aware of the low opinion in which some stations are held.

A visit to the toilet is often the main reason for stopping at services, and often this can be a dispiriting experience.

"If they're not maintained they can get into an absolutely horrendous state," he says.

He points to investments such as a 1m refurbishment at the Gordano services outside Bristol as evidence of progress.

Early days

On 2 November 1959, the M1 opened and with it came Britain's first motorway service station at "Watford Gap".

Hard as it may seem now, the service areas were greeted warmly at the outset, according to architectural historian David Lawrence.

"To take a run up the M1 the first 59 miles and stop at Watford Gap for tea and refreshments, tea and a bun, tea and a sandwich, was - believe it or not now - an amazing experience for a lot of people," he says.

The stations blossomed, and by the mid-1970s Britain boasted nearly 40 services along the expanding motorway network.

In the 1970s, the government had restricted the goods and services the services areas were allowed to sell. In addition, it charged high rents and took a levy on profits.

Stagnation set in and so too the stigma of poor services at high cost.

In 1980 however, the government allowed the operators to become site leaseholders, bringing to an end the high rents that had typified the first two decades of the industry.

Companies began to grow - although poor perceptions remained the same.

Rules and regulations

Today, operators say strict regulation is still responsible for high prices and are eager for greater freedom to run their businesses. Currently, the firms must adhere to a series of rules and requirements.

The government insists upon limiting the number of motorway signs advertising the operator of the service to two.

Out of use petrol pump
Heavy traffic can have a negative effect on service stations

It also limits retail space to a maximum of 5,000 square feet. Alcohol is banned as are conference facilities for more than 15 people.

However, the service operators are required to fulfil mandatory responsibilities, which they say are driving up their costs to the customer.

Namely, the service stations must stay open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and provide free short-term parking, as well as petrol, hot food and drink and toilet facilities.

Some 81 of Britain's 90 service stations are controlled by the big three operators. Moto is the largest with 37 stations, while Welcome Break runs 24 and RoadChef 20. Up to the present day, the services have changed hands for huge sums of money.

Guaranteed turnover from their privileged position right on the motorway makes the business attractive to investors. And the figures show why.

The three companies which dominate the landscape today enjoy a combined turnover of more than 1.5bn a year.

High Street highway

Despite all this, the companies think the government still has them on a tight leash and that profitability could be greatly improved.

The Cropper family eating a meal
Companies are looking to provide more consumer-orientated goods

Changes are afoot and the character of the stations is changing. The big three have each agreed partnerships with High Street brands which they say the public recognise and - crucially - trust.

RoadChef make much of their Costa Coffee franchise and claim it has increased sales significantly.

Similarly, Welcome Break relies on the brand awareness among consumers of KFC. Moto, the largest operator, now offers Marks & Spencer Simply Food outlets at selected services.

Regulations still restrict the operators advertising these new facilities on motorway signs.

The operators' solution? To change their company names.

Hence Moto services featuring a Marks & Spencer are run by a subsidiary called "Moto Marks & Spencer". This can be spelt out on the motorway sign. Welcome Break and RoadChef have also renamed themselves to include their High Street partners

Currently, the Highways Agency is reviewing the rules and regulations binding the industry. If the operators' hopes are fulfilled, the consumer can expect to see much more of the High Street coming to the motorway.

The Money Programme - Perils Of The Motorway Pitstop. BBC2 at 1900 BST on Friday 10 November.

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